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Posts published in February 2009

An odd couple, and an idea

Two Northwest House Democrats turned thumbs down on the conference committee stimulus package. Idaho's Walt Minnick, coming from the Blue Dog conservative side, wasn't hard to understand; like most of the other critics, he thought there was too much spending and too little likelihood the bill would get the job done. And he had the credibility of having developed an alternative of his own: “My bill was a high-powered rifle. This bill is a shotgun, and it will add nearly $1 trillion we do not have to a debt already out of control.” So, siding with the Republicans.

But then there too was the nay from Oregon's Peter DeFazio - for almost exactly the opposite reasons. Too many cuts from the bill for spending proposals, in DeFazio's view.

Of course, no one knows exactly what will work best to pump some adrenaline into the economy.

Some further attention ought to go, though, to one suggestion DeFazio had - a procedural one applying to the Senate.

The idea in the Senate is that to pass controversial legislation, you have to have not just a simple majority (50 senators and the vice president, if all are present and voting) but 60 votes to override a filibuster. The Senate rule basically is that you can't stop a senator from speaking on the floor - for hours or days - unless you round up 60 votes for "cloture." In recent years, we haven't seen many real filibusters, instead abbreviating to the idea that you need 60 votes to force a bill to the floor if the minority says it even might try to filibuster.

DeFazio's suggestion (according to the Bend Bulletin): Eliminate the niceties. If the Republicans, or anyone else, wants to filibuster, let 'em filibuster. Make 'em work for it. Let it all out there. For that matter, entertain us - and point up what's at stake at the same time.

Here's a case where some bread and circuses could actually result in better lawmaking . . .

Hard times, all over

Member of Congress - not all, but most - tend to be more insulated than most of us from economic downturns, but that's a little less true at the state legislative level. State legislators (in the Northwest's states, as in most others) are part-time positions, and those not retired or relatively wealthy have to deal with the same economy as the rest of us.

A useful piece in the Boise Weekly points out some of the Idaho legislators who are hitting scrambling times outside the session.

House Majority Caucus Chair Ken Roberts, R-McCall, is quoted, "I'm looking for jobs and doing my taxes," and the report adds, "Roberts owns a construction and excavation business in Valley County, where construction has come to a near standstill. His wife works four days a week at a pancake house in McCall." Had a little intake of breath when we saw the phrase "construction and excavation business in Valley County" - that may be as good a locus of a rough business climate as any in the Northwest right now.

The breakup

Tough budget times tends to foster talk of either (1) combining agencies to merge and diminish administrative costs, or (2) splitting up agencies, the better to search for efficiencies which might more easily be hidden away in larger organizations.

Which is right? Hard to say; and it probably varies by agency. But there are plenty of efforts around the Northwest to seriously consider one or the other.

This thought prompted by a proposal to split the Washington Department of Social & Health Services into two. Or four. Depending on which legislator you're talking to . . .

But will they know it when they see it?

Mark Miloscia

Mark Miloscia

The definitions are so often what trip you up.

It was Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who remarked in a 1964 decision that he would not "attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [hard-core pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it . . ." The know-it-when-I-see-it standard, though, never quite works for state laws, which creates no end of difficulties.

A group of Washington legislators, evidently led by Representative Mark Miloscia, D-Federal Way, has the idea of helping fill a bit of the state revenue deficit with a porn tax of 18.5% on goods and services. That concept may not get too much criticism, apart from the affected industry. Buy how do you define exactly what is covered?

Here's the attempt in House Bill 2103:

"Adult entertainment materials and services" means those entertainment materials and services that are primarily oriented to an interest in sex, including but not limited to magazines, photographs, motion pictures, videotapes, videodiscs, cable television services, telephone services, audiotapes, computer programs, and paraphernalia. "Adult entertainment materials and services" does not include (a) books or magazines that contain no photographs or other graphics; or (b) motion pictures, videotapes, videodiscs, or cable television services that do not contain any explicit sex of the type that would be rated "X" using the standards existing on January 1, 2009, of the motion picture association of America, inc. Any motion picture, videotape, videodisc, cable television service, or other visual medium that contains any explicit sex of the type that would be rated "X" using these standards is considered to be primarily oriented to an interest in sex.

You can probably start listing the question-mark areas - how about this? how about that? - about as well as we can. Passed in present form, this one will probably be shot down in court. But there's some indication it may be amended before going much further. We'll be interested to see what improvements they come up with.

Not quite so much the warrior, maybe

Gil Kerlikowske

Gil Kerlikowske

For coming on to 40 years, we've had a "war on drugs," which has become quite a war indeed. The February 2 Washington Post Magazine featured a must-read, detailed report about the raid on the home of a small-town mayor in Maryland: "Acting on a mistaken drug trafficking suspicion, a SWAT team broke down their door, shot beloved pets and shattered a happy home. Was it an extreme reaction, or business as usual in America's war on drugs?" (The pretext for the raid was a box containing drugs, which police themselves had planted at the mayor's front door.) In a followup online chat, one of the writers remarked, "Obviously, one of the most frightening aspects of this sad tale is that it could happen to any one of us."

This paramilitary activity in our country has been a federally-driven, primarily, development, pushed by presidents of both parties for four decades; the results have included no diminishment of drug activity but unabated violence which is becoming increasingly hazardous. Might the Obama Administration try a different direction?

In nominating Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske as "drug czar," Obama may be signaling that change is in the wind. Not radical, 180-degree turnarounds - which might have been what appointment of his predecessor, Norm Stamper, would have indicated - but significant adjustment at least.

The key touchstone here is Seattle Initiative 75, a 2003 measure which specifically called for making marijuana not legal exactly, but the lowest priority for law enforcement. The measure passed. It didn't pass with Kerlikowske's endorsement, but that has to be parsed: The Seattle Times reported local law enforcement considered it "vague, potentially confusing and unlikely to change what they do on the street" - in other words, not wrong as policy, but simply unnecessary. The followup sentence: "Arresting people for possessing marijuana for personal use, says Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, is not a priority now." Since the measure's passage, the chief appears to have abided by its terms, without complaint. (more…)

Transportation confusion

Jeff Kropf

Since the advent of live blogging, we've been a little sad this medium wasn't available years ago; it would long have been a great way to cover and follow, for example, state legislative meetings. Fortunately, there was some live blogging of today's Idaho House Transportation Committee meeting, which was giving initial consideration to a string of road bills, five of them key measures proposed by Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter.

A subsequent news story, even if well written, may not give the flavor of what happened here as well as some of the real-time takes on what happened. Some excepts from an Idaho Statesman live blog on the meeting (in chronological order, reversed from the original):

1:42 p.m. — Jason Kreizenbeck, Gov. Butch Otter's chief of staff, is presenting an overview of all five bills. Kreizenbeck said these bills are to generate additional revenue to maintain and improve Idaho's roads and bridges.

1:46 p.m. — Kreizenbeck is looking for some help from the Idaho Transportation Department, but none seems to be coming.

1:50 p.m. — Hard to say this is going well. Committee members seem stumped by the bills, which seem to be lacking some pivotal information. Kreizenbeck and committee chairwoman JoAnn Wood have struggled to connect on information as well.

1:55 p.m. — [Representative Phil] Hart wants to know what the money going into a new account created by the Gov. is going to be used for. Pam Lowe, director of the Idaho Transportation Department, said the money will be used to renovation and restoration.

2:00 p.m. — Wood got a jab in saying that she has not had time to look at the bills. The bills did not get to the Legislature until late Monday afternoon.

2:02 p.m. — It is hard to hear in the room as legislators are struggling to hear questions. "I think the amount of people here is soaking up the sound," Wood said.

2:03 p.m. — There is a lot of confusion, particularly about financial impact of the proposals, in the room.

2:19 p.m. — JoAnn Wood expressed concern about what raising the fees on the heaviest trucks would mean, especially since they pay such a high rate now.

The committee voted to print the bills, though some of the committee members made a point of indicating that didn't necessarily mean they would vote to move them any further. As the committee chair, JoAn Wood, remarked at 2:31 p.m.: "We do have a lot of work left in front of us."

OR: Prospects for 10

Jason Atkinson

Jason Atkinson

A recommended read on the Oregonian Jeff Mapes blog, about state Senator Jason Atkinson, R-Central Point; Atkinson is a prime prospect for the field of Oregon gubernatorial candidates in 2010.

Should be noted that when he ran for governor in 2006, he finished third - and not an especially close third - in the Republican primary. But that was then. Neither the two contenders who topped him (Kevin Mannix and Ron Saxton) almost certainly are out of the picture for 2010. The dynamic then favored a Republican nominee who would run as the centrist guy (that was supposed to be Saxton), while Atkinson is solidly conservative. But the internal party dynamic may be different next time, especially after the Saxton loss. Atkinson would start this effort with the revival of his old organization, building from there - a better start than most other Republicans not named Smith or Walden would have.

Besides which, there was this: Atkinson displayed excellent campaign skills in 2006, better maybe than his opponents. He delivered a knack for communicating with a centrist tone while not abandoning his essential take on things. He could be a very strong candidate for 2010.

Closing in on a record

Peter DeFazio

Peter DeFazio

Representative Peter DeFazio erred a bit the other day, on a matter of record. From the David Steves blog Capitol Notebook (Eugene Register Guard):

"U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio opened a state Capitol news conference Friday with this bit of trivia: When he completes his current term, in January, 2011, he will have served 24 years—tying the record for longevity for any Oregon congressman." There was a punch line to this: The other 24-year guy, Al Ullman (also a Democrat), went no further because he lost his bid for re-election in 1980, thereby becoming the classic case study of an incumbent losing touch with his district. (DeFazio, who seems also to be mulling a run for governor, is highly unlikely to fall victim to the same problem.)

DeFazio's glitch: Ullman doesn't hold the Oregon/U.S. house longevity record. That is held by Willis Hawley, best known nationally as the co-sponsor of the trade-limiting Smoot-Hawley Tariff, "which raised import tariffs to record levels, and, as many historians claim, contributed to the circumstances which resulted in the Great Depression." He was ousted in 1932, not coincidentally. so one point DeFazio made stands: both representatives serving longer than he has were bounced out by the voters.

Or, as David Sarasohn of the Oregonian wrote in his entertaining rundown today about the state's House delegations, "So on the one hand, Hawley helped make the Great Depression even more depressing. On the other hand, he's the most famous Oregon congressman ever."

(A Sarasohn glitch: "Bob Duncan was elected to the House from the 4th District in the 1960s, then moved to Portland and was elected from the 3rd - the only Oregonian sent to Congress from two different districts." Not the only: There was Denny Smith from the 2nd and 5th; and you could stretch it add Walter Lefferty from the 2nd and 3rd.)

The most notable data point to emerge from looking through the longevity runs of Oregon representatives is how the terms in office generally have been lengthening, Hawley and Ullman notwithstanding. Apart from freshman Kurt Schrader, all of Oregon's current House members are in their sixth terms or more, and Schrader's predecessor was in her sixth. Call that the marker of a trend . . .

Dash that cat

moscow pullman airport

Moscow-Pullman Airport (in the distance)

The Moscow-Pullman Airport, not one of the big hubs, is located out in the rolling Palouse fields more than easy walking distance from either city, and the site of sporadic regional air travel. The main difficulty there is keeping a steady enough flow of flights (a few each from Alaska and Horizon) coming and going. But if you're the Department of Homeland Security (memo to Barack Obama: Please change that name; we need no reminders of Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa), your eye might have been caught by this descriptor line about the airport in Wikipedia:

A cat named "Dash" occupies the airport and freely roams through the security checkpoint.

Well, that Siamese just couldn't stand (even if Dash has been an airport fixture for four years). In his latest email to constituents, state Representative Tom Trail puts on the wry: "Many of us who used the airport looked forward to this friendly feline. However, it is apparent that in reality Dash was a deep undercover terrorist cat trained by Al Qaeda and just waiting to launch an attack on local citizens. Homeland security agents became suspicious when they saw Dash with a deadly weapon - she unsheathed her claws. Agent suspicions also grew in intensity when they realized that over 4 years there had not been a single high jacking, terrorist attack, the sign of a single rodent, and not a single case of bubonic plague at the airport. This perfect record was just too good to be true. Dash was last seen being escorted under armed guard and the rumor is that she is being shipped off to Catanamo for intensive interrogation."

Actually, there's an effort underway to find a new home for Dash.

(There's the argument that someone might be allergic to a cat, and this is why the removal. That will not become credible at least until cats, and dogs, which do regularly travel by plane, are banned from airports even for travel purposes.)

Praise be that the feds are out there to protect us all from a little slice of humanity . . . or felinity.

An immigration sweet spot?

The subject of illegal immigration, subsumed to a degree by the current economic crunch, is bound to rebound - it almost always does in tough times. If it turns into a hot topic that, say, the Obama Administration might want to put away with some efficiency, the search may be on for a political "sweet spot", a point in the debate where some realistic solution (or something close to it) might be found, a place that satisfies no one on the extremes but might find some broad acceptance.

Something like what a group of Idaho business people are suggesting. Wouldn't that be a mind-blower: The Obama Administration drawing from such a source? And yet, as policy, it might be a pretty good fit.

Brent Olmstead of the Idaho Business Coalition for Immigration Reform had this to say in a guest opinion in the Idaho Statesman:

Amnesty unfairly rewards those who broke our laws, and mass deportation is unrealistic. Current enforcement policy is centered on undocumented workers who are contributing to our economy. The enforcement priority should target those engaged in criminal activities.

That is why we support a sensible guest worker program that takes undocumented workers off the black market and legitimizes their economic contributions without providing an expedited pathway towards citizenship status. This type of a program in conjunction with increased enforcement at the border will more readily allow the government to know who is entering our country.

A guest worker program that provides foreign workers with a worker ID removes the incentive for millions of people to illegally enter our country. It adds workers to our tax base, generates revenue for needed social services and it satisfies the need that employers have for a reliable labor pool.

Those who are here illegally and want to stay should be assessed a fine, pay any owed back-taxes and submit to and pass a criminal background check. When all of that is completed the individual should be given a renewable work permit that is valid as long as the individual stays employed.

Absolutists on one side or the other won't much like it. But it jumps past the key problems with the absolute answers, from basic practicality to making a joke out of our legal system, to having some realistic control of our borders and a sense of who is and isn't within them. This may be an idea worth some more thought.